Archive for the ‘Top Ten of the 2000s’ category

A Call for Participants

March 20, 2010

Some of you will be seeing this post in your blog tracker after having just had to face a similar announcement on your Facebook or Twitter. For this I apologize. What we at Vox Pop, and the Torontoist Book Page, lack in getting things done early, we more than make up for in overdoing them at the last second.

In search of a fun and engaging project for National Poetry Month, the folks at The Torontoist asked me to think about what I might want to do as part of my occasional poetry coverage, what with April fast approaching. After some long walks in the proverbial snow, I decided on a theme: optimism. Optimism as a naive joy, as a specific choice, and as a stubbornly revolutionary force in the face of some bad times for Canadian poets (arts cuts, magazine cuts, a certain growing apathy, institutional indifference, etc). Optimism is the thing I’d most like to see people talking about. And who better to talk about it than the preternaturally optimistic, the most devoutly optimistic social grouping, the young people.

So, on that note, what The Torontoist would like to do is…

The Torontoist’s Book Page and Vox Populism Present:
THE OPTIMISMS PROJECT: A National Poetry Month Thing

-we’d like to cobble together 30 or so poets, all under the age of 30, and give them some space (100-150 words) to express, in whatever way they choose, what makes them feel optimistic about the future of poetry in Canada. The word Optimism is pluralized in the project title for a reason; we hope to have diverse, surprising, and even contradictory hopes expressed in the same space. Submissions could be prose, poetry, general, specific, practical, fantastical, whatever. Again: diversity, and surprise, are our hopes. We’re “optimistic” that we’ll get some of both.

-each day in April we will feature the optimism of a separate poet, published on The Torontoist’s Book Page with a photo, a short (25 word max) bio, and any internet linkups they may desire.

-in terms of eligibility, it’s wide open (published, unpublished, “novice”, etc), and will run under something approximating a first-come, first-serve basis. If we have to double up, we may. I’m thinking a birth year of 1980, or later. But we’re flexible. University Teachers: I’m relying on you for leads. High School Teachers: You too. Young, established (or establishing poets): Submit yourselves. Everyone else: I have a hunch you might know someone who’d be a great fit.

-If you could please forward this Call for Submissions as widely as possible, I’d be grateful. April approacheth quickly. Submissions should be e-mailed, as soon as humanly possible, to Though it’s the “Torontoist” book page, we hope to have submissions from all over the country.


Anyway, if you’ve survived your multiplatform spamming, and still feel somewhat affectionate towards me, please consider who in your life might be a good fit for this project (Note: It might be you…) and forward accordingly. Time is something of the essence.

Jacob McArthur Mooney,
Vox Populism.

Knocking Off the Knotting-Off (Johnstone, Palmu, Vehicule, Wells)

January 1, 2010

I’m positive there’s more out there, but here’s a brief round-up of some recent favourites/bests lists I’ve seen in my semi-regular internet travels. This will be it for such list-reports from me. They are starting to stray from playful narcissism into just regular narcissism. I apologize for any role I may have played in this erosion.

Jim Johnstone (The Velocity of Escape) does his five favourite books of Canadian poetry this year over here on his blog. I at first thought it was a Decade list, not just 2009, and wondered why everything was so recent-skewing. Tee-hee. Oopsy Daisy.

Noted creator of internet-based anger, Brian Palmu, leads a lightning-fast tour through every book of poetry he read cover to cover in 2009. I wonder if he took notes as the year went on, or if this was all recall.

The Vehicule Press blog hands out a handful of Mosts & Bests. Thanks to them for picking Vox Pop as a favourite new poetry blog. I’m pleased, surely, but probably would have selected Table Music if I was doing the choosing. It’s a little more substantial than this one.

I’d like to think that my subtle nagging played a part in Zach Wells’s decision to list a collection of notable books he found over the past year. Lots of people seem to love Damian Rogers’ Paper Radio. I need to get my mitts on that one.

Lots of other lists out there, I’m sure. Some dude named “Ursus” picked mon ami Sandy Pool for his 2009 Top 5.

Okay. Now let’s stop doing this. We turn our bright attentions to new things…

Knotting-Off the Lately: Starnino

December 28, 2009

Carmine Starnino, essayist, editor, critic,poet, and cage fighter, is also the man behind the curtain at Vehicule Press’s blog. He’s recently joined the cat-calling hoard and posted his own best-of list for 2009. For me, this is mostly a list of books that are working their way up my need-to-read list. I’ve properly digested the Solie, Tierney, Swift, Warner and Klassen titles, though. The Klassen one is a head-scratcher of the highest magnitude, but full of rewards. Likewise the Tierney and Warner. I’ve spoken highly of Pigeon before, and will always read anything Todd Swift puts out there. Poet and noted Vox Pop roommate Jeff Latosik posted this appreciative review of Paper Radio, which I need to get some time with soon. Same for the Sarah and the Clifford.

Here’s the full list, for Carmine’s conflicted introduction (complete with pie charts!) go to the Vehicule blog.

Jane Again
(Biblioasis), Wayne Clifford
Lean-to (Gaspereau), Tonja Gunvaldsen Klassen
Meniscus (Bibloasis), Shane Neilson
True Concessions (Goose Lane), Craig Poile
Paper Radio (ECW), Damian Rogers
Pause for Breath (Biblioasis), Robyn Sarah
Pigeon (Anansi), Karen Solie
Seaway: New and Selected Poems (Salmon Publishing), Todd Swift
The Hayflick Limit (Coach House), Matthew Tierney
Mole (Anansi), Patrick Warner

PS: Cheers to Vehicule for giving press to other houses and their books. Where else are presses using their webspace to foster the common good? Mansfield comes to mind. Are there others?

Knotting-Off the Aughts #1: Dionne Brand’s Inventory

December 24, 2009

Year: 2006
Place of Creation: Southern Ontario
Press: McClelland & Stewart, Ltd

Mode of Acquisition: Required reading. Before I put it on this list, Inventory was on the reading list for a master’s class taught at the University of Guelph by Janice Kulyk Keefer and the late, great Connie Rooke. The world of required reading has produced precious few lasting favourites for me. I remember being made to read Dickens in high school, hating it, and only enjoying it again when I picked up a copy of Bleak House years later and brought it back to my own bleak, Dickensian house in the St. John’s student ghetto. When some friends told me recently that they were teaching some of my poems in their freshmen curriculums, I briefly panicked. Dear undergraduates of Montreal and Halifax: If we got off on the wrong foot somehow, I apologize. Blind dates can be awfully formal, they’re not made for folks like us.

Status of Personal Copy: Given away to a friend from a younger cohort who recycled the text back into the flow of new students. I’d like to think that it was then re-gifted and re-gifted and still being brought to class. If any Guelph MFA students see a well dog-eared copy of Inventory with illegible marginal notes in their travels, it’s likely mine. It’d be good to have those notes again; this project has been concerned with matured reactions born of multiple readings in different moods and places in one reader’s life, but having the original reaction around for a comparison would be interesting.

One year she sat at the television weeping,
no reason,
the whole time
-from Part III

Poets, like scientists, put a lot of faith in observation. In contemporary poetry (and, to some degree, contemporary science) that observation tends to be downward, into small corners, the mechanistic souls of things. In both fields, this is more an era of the microscope than the telescope, appreciating the small over the big. But there are still practitioners in both areas concerned with a specific and exigent review of the larger world (or worlds). Astronomers still speak in terms of light years like they’re miles, and some poets are willing to observe things in their entirety, all tributaries and rivulets. I’ve saved the final entry in this project for a book by the Canadian poet who is doing this the best.

Brand is likely Canada’s best political poet, in the broad definition of that word: a poet concerned with interhuman interaction beyond the simple 1-to-1 scope most humanistic poetry takes as its chief interest; interhuman interaction at the level of the neighbourhood, the city, the country, and the planet, and concerned with both the historical precedents of those interactions, and with predicting how they would evolve if present conditions were changed. Her politics are specific and angry, divorced from the hippy humanism that is the de facto political alignment of the Canadian poet by their wit, their pride, and their willingness to name enemies. This is has led to a reputation that has occasionally bothered certain stupid people, people who are unwilling to engage with her as anything beyond a sort of cartoonish impersonation of the politicized black woman, shaking her overeducated finger at the ignorance around her. Brand’s field of observation is broad and piercing, but if that wasn’t enough to make her a special case in this country of professional navel-gazers, the proactive element in her poetry, its opinions and ideas, leaves her inexplicably alone.

I want to talk a bit about observation. Inventory presents itself as the passive tracking of reported instances of violence in the Middle East and beyond, over the course of a single year somewhere in the first half of this decade. In this way its central conceit is no more editorial than the one behind Kennedy and Wershler’s poem-machine in Apostrophe. But because we know Dionne Brand, we’re not buying that passivity for long, and while Inventory is somewhat light on the big dramatic turns, it still makes room for confrontation. Some of these confrontations are outward, toward the involved parties, while others are turned inward to the passivity itself, or inward further to poetry. She pauses after recounting the death of a “child on bicycle by bomb in Baquaba” to examine the alliteration as it suddenly appears in front of her, as if the terrible music of the decade has clung to her reportage and refused to let it go. The long poem also allows for a dexterity of view between the “there” and “here” that never feels trite or ostentatious. If Inventory has a central political mechanism, it is one of translation, between the unchallenged mathematics of newscaster-reported body counts and the human interpretation of those deaths. As in here:

Consider then the obliteration of four restaurants,
the disappearance of sixty taxis each with one passenger,
or four overcrowded classrooms, one tier of a football stadium,
the sudden lack of, say, cosmeticians

Breaking up the woman accounting for the evening news, we visit a woman traveling through Egypt and a woman reminiscing in a movie theatre. These are also passive figures, the traveler is locked into a typical tourist pattern of looking but not touching, and the movie patron is instructed to do this by the nature of film as an art form. As the poem proceeds, though, The Counter comes back to us as refrain and counterpoint, listing the dead, their numbers and locations, giving Inventory its morbid and unflinching rhythm section.

So many poets, especially those in and around my age, are happily slouching into a sort of superficially-engaged political agnosticism. Disinterested in the specifics of policy, we cling to the typical liberal stances on issues in much the same way our parents or grandparents may have clung to the typically conservative ones, as more of a means of self-identifying with our community than expressing any derived opinions. Admittedly, the urge to write poems about farming or biophysics and the urge to research the GMOs we name drop into such poems are likely dissimilar and rarely shared in the same imagination, and this is fine, I guess. What it leaves, though, is a parade of knee-jerk aphorists. Global warming is bad. Urban sprawl is bad. Stephen Harper is bad. I’m good and you’re good and poetry is fucking awesome. I agree with all of the preceding statements, you understand, but I’ve also spoken to a lot of poets about politics and to some politicians about poetry, and it’s hard to decide which was the less-informed group. I’m not asking for a generation of poets with masterful knowledge of media culture or political economy (though it might help), but I think a political ethic of pluralism, of strengthened resolve as the product of considered alternatives, isn’t too much to ask if you decide to engage with your telescope, in lieu of your microscope.

I hold Brand’s Inventory in a different place not because she’s done all the homework there is to do, but because she’s locked onto means of interacting with the uncaring world that takes this element of study as far out of the equation as possible. At the level of national motivations and peacekeeping, I give way to experts in other fields, but at the level of the individual death, or of the newscaster’s (non-)reaction to reported body counts, atrocity is strictly poets’ work.

My #2 favourite in this list was Christian Bök’s Eunoia. I understand the tension in these top two choices, though other people seem to like them both as well. Bök has publicly proclaimed the commercial success of his books as proof that what “the people” really want from poetry is more experimentation, but while reading a book like Inventory, that opinion falls flat for me. It’s like saying more people would go to church if the mass was still in Latin (or perhaps, an as-yet-unfinished experimental xenolanguage that Bök is presently constructing). Inventory is the book I think of whenever my non-poetry friends (I like to keep a couple in the stable– so I can write poems about them, you know) wish that poetry would be more “accessible”. Accessibility is a terrible word, and it’s done far more harm to poetry than good, but if it simply means that people would read something if you put it in front of them, then I can’t think of a more accessible book that Inventory. Written polyphonically, but in a set of voices that don’t stand out as unusual in the national lexicon, the book looks only to shared, public, experiences for its content. Even the more personal section (the Egyptian trip) is egoless, and only presented as a framing device for the main body of the text.

A hypothetical public reader may complain about the lack of resolution or even moral to Inventory. But I’d argue that there’s a definite moral (In brief: when the assault of our era becomes too chaotic and constant to understand in any prosaic way, then this poetic accounting is the only means of participating). Put another way, at some point, counting replaces countering. Or, the achievable passive reaction has to stand-in for the impossible active one. Or, as Brand puts it in the poem’s last lines:

I have nothing soothing to tell you
that’s not my job,
my job is to revise and revise this bristling list,

Superficially, this sounds like an excuse for the unengaged poet, but placed at the end of the list (both hers and mine), I see it as something else. Inventory shows us the steadfastness and diligence needed to track the slow-bleed of the human condition, and it’s a grueling task. It requires a political understanding deeper than most of us possess, just as a documentary filmmaker needs to know enough about her subject to point the camera in the right direction, accounting at the level Brand shows us in Inventory requires an engaged imagination, not just engagement or imagination. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable, in the end, to say that our decade has demanded, in plain terms and without caveat, poetry like this. For all we talk about how ours is an essentially reactive art form (we see something, are struck by it, and move forward from there) we have under-responded unforgivably to the major tropes and themes of our time. Observation needs to be about more than a painter’s eye for the play of light through a window, or a musician’s ear for the rhythmic play of overheard speech. Observation, if it is done by observers engaged in the world from the minimum threshold of our senses on up, results in as many books like Inventory as it does books about personal history, or the arms-length ephemera of contemporary life. The fact that our output has been so imbalanced leaves our true motives suspect. Our decade asked us quite clearly for a downpour of books like Inventory, written from infinite perspectives and in diverse voices, and we gave it exactly one. Surely we deserve whatever happens next.

Bonus Round: The full Knotting-Off list is available here, complete with posting dates and a one-word theme of the discussion. Thanks for reading everyone. I hope you go back to it.

Knotting-Off: Honourable Mentions and Dishonourable Traits (Part 2 of 2)

December 19, 2009

Continuing with our two part wrap-up of this little appreciation, I’d like to talk about ten books that were strongly considered for the Knotting-Off Favourites, but for reasons very much tied to the ideas expressed in Part One, were left off. I’m just doing these in alphabetical order by author, with short considerations after the title.

Ken Babstock’s Days Into Flatspin (Anansi, 2001)
Everyone loves to talk about Airstream Land Yacht and the not-of-this decade Mean, but I’ll take his sophomore effort every time. The hesitant and troublingly distant interaction with nature is sublime and morally complex, standout poems for me thus include Bear 10 and Fire Watch. Flatspin holds a similar place in Babstock’s career as Modern and Normal does in Karen Solie’s, the transition piece between a more traditionally biographical debut and the whirling philosophical carnival to come. Both poets have three excellent books to their names, but my discussion of Flatspin would be redundant after my discussion of Modern and Normal, so here we are.

George Elliot Clarke’s Execution Poems (Gaspereau, 2001)
Crushingly beautiful, and deceptively difficult. This collection, as much as any others (maybe in cahoots with WC Williams’ Patterson and Alice Notley’s Disobedience) got me interested in the book as the meaningful unit of expression, as much if not more indivisible, if you want it to be, as smaller atomistic units such as the sound, the word, the line, the phrase, the poem, etc…

Michael Crummey’s Salvage (McClelland & Stewart, 2002)
Have we lost him completely to fiction? Mayhaps. In Salvage, Crummey does the lush pastoral thing (a style much abused by lesser poets) with verve, confidence, and great humour. The collection starts with the caution, “Sad poems ahead” and goes on to inhabit that sadness fully. Crummey also manages to do the devotional love poem well here, something that his generation of male Canadian poets all but gave up on, and seems to be just now returning to.

Dennis Lee’s Un (Anansi, 2003) and Yesno (Anansi, 2007)
This gave me something of an organizational problem. Un and Yesno are hard to separate as books (they look very much like a single product, even having a shared table of contents). Wondering whether to combine them into one textual entity (thus breaking the spirit of the “one collection per poet” rule mentioned earlier) or write them both up (thus breaking the letter of said rule), I decided to simply throw in the towel, and left the project off the list. Dennis is quite possibly my favourite living Canadian poet, for a detailed appreciation, please read this thing I did last summer.

Don McKay’s Strike/slip (McClelland & Stewart, 2006)
Imagine for a moment that poetry books were pitched in much the same way as Hollywood films. A man in a large hat and blue jeans walks into a corporate office wheeling behind him a covered display tray. He greets the executives and says, “I have the subject of an exciting, downright thrilling book of poems right here, under this handkerchief!” The executives lick their lips and lean in as he pulls the scarf away to reveal…”Rocks! All sorts of rocks! Rocks as a metaphor for the ancient earth, disinterested in our fleeting human moment! Rocks as a vehicle for meditative thought! For deep ecological attention!” The executives grow pleased and begin to scribble on the backs of their assistants’ heads. No one doubts this man for a second, because they know this is Don McKay they’re dealing with, and he’ll turn this yawn-inducing concept into exactly what he claims, winding up with one of the three or four best collections of his career.

Erin Mouré’s Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person (Anansi, 2001)
Moure takes the troubling neo-colonial politics of translating into English and runs with them, gleefully subverting the original work by resetting it in her own neighbourhood. Among the most politically ambitious books of the decade, sure, but also hilarious, alternatively reverent and irreverent, and able to distill big ideas into the smallest gestures and asides. Probably the unofficial #11 on the list, I can pick this book up in any mood and love it.

George Murray’s The Rush to Here (Nightwood, 2007)
Not generally considered an experimentalist, Murray does wonders here by giving the innumerable little tics and reconsiderations that populated The Hunter a single defining conceit. The idea of a sonnet that uses thought-rhymes in lieu of sound-rhymes works better than you’d think. This collection stands as something of the missing link between the form’s more stringent history and its present popularity as a rhetorical frame for philosophical free-versers. There’s an argument hiding in the subtext of this book, suggesting that the non-aural elements of a poem (its messages, images, epiphanies, questions, etc) work in very similar ways to its aural components (rhythm, meter, sounds, and so on). Eventually, you can hear the metaphors click into place at the end of the lines in Murray’s sonnets just as clearly as you can hear the rhyme scheme march along in a more traditional example of the form.

Dave O’Meara’s The Vicinity (Brick, 2003)
There’s so much to be said for poets that can do a little bit of everything. I’m not going to say it here, but, you know….it’s there to be said. Okay, then.

Todd Swift’s Winter Tennis (DC Books, 2007)
Swift likely goes under-appreciated in his home country because he lives in far-off England. However, he makes appearances as a regular booster of young poets of diverse styles and interests (myself included). Rather than bore you with the details, if you’re interested take a look at this review I wrote last year. It’s the only review I’ve ever written that I’m happy with.

Paul Vermeersch’s Between the Walls (McClelland & Stewart, 2005)
Here is the book that spent the most time waffling back and forth between the top ten list and this one. Paul is one of my very best friends, and the typical first reader of my poems. But he’s also someone that I tracked down and befriended specifically because of how much I loved Between the Walls (though I also liked Burn and The Fat Kid, Paul seems to be one of the few poets I enjoy more with each successive book, including his upcoming The Reinvention of the Human Hand, which may be better than all three). Worried about writing a defensive essay to quell my own guilt about choosing a close friend, I struggled to find an acceptable angle on the book. I found myself bogged down in questions of objectivity and personal allegiances (forgetting, apparently, that this was always a subjective personal project, from the very beginning) and ended up abandoning ship on my original plan to include Walls in the top ten. Perhaps a mistake, I’m not sure.

There’s no books in either the Top Ten or this shadow cabinet from 2009. I feel like the kind of critical writing I wanted to do needed the benefit of lapsed time, and the books I loved from this past year didn’t quite have the necessary gestation to get a fair shot with their peers. For the record, the 2009 books I considered for the list were the new ones from Ms. Holbrook, Mr. Langer, Mr. Starnino, and Mr. Surani.

On a personal note (as if blogs had non-personal notes…) when I started this project in late October, I gave myself a trial period from then until the end of the year. I didn’t want to commit the kind of energy I felt a true engagement would require if nobody was reading the results, so I decided that 1,000 visitors would be a nice round number to shoot for, if I got that many by the end of December, I’d keep going. As my nifty little traffic tracker ticks towards 6,000 tonight, I’d like to thank all the people, places, and things that sent readers my way over these two months. I’ll try to pay it back, in much the same way a barnacle tries to pay back a sperm whale. Thanks to the following: Christian Bök, Bookninja, Chris Banks, Coach House Press, The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, Open Book Toronto, Brian Palmu, Poetry Daily, The Poetry Foundation, Alessandro Porco, Sina Queyras, the Quill & Quire, Stephen Rowe, Vehicule Press, Paul Vermeersch, Zachariah Wells, and the many Facebookers and Tweeters who linked in. Special thanks to anyone who enriched the conversation by writing in with spirited words.

I’ll have a post up on the Knotting-Off #1 sometime soon. Promise.

Knotting-Off: Honourable Mentions and Dishonourable Traits (Part 1 of 2)

December 19, 2009

As promised, we pause the love parade for a moment to take a step back, breathe deeply, and consider the situation. I’d like to thank all of you for keeping up with this list, and for your words of encouragement (and your occasional playful argument-prods) over these last few weeks. It’s very rewarding to see, from my distant perch and the traffic data it provides, new visitors who drop by and read the whole thing from Intro up to #2, in one sitting. Thanks for that. I hope you didn’t have shit to do.

This little interruption has two component parts: a brief discussion on the nagging considerations I couldn’t stop thinking about throughout the length of this tangent, and a list of books that, for various reasons, were near-misses. The first half is contained herein, I’ll post part two very shortly.

The Poetics of the List:
One of the ongoing dramas for me was the tension between the list order as I originally made it, and a desire to move things around in the interest of dramatic flow, simpatico pairings, or juxtaposition. I think I said in the intro that I wasn’t too concerned with the order itself, that my love for, say, book number three isn’t in any quantifiable way greater than my love for number five. Books of poems don’t really have very many “quantifiable ways” about them, and with the exception of maybe number one, these ones share the same honoured space on my bookshelf (or sailor’s trunk, or slow-moving American river…).

I found myself quibbling with the list order more and more as time went on. Writing about a certain book would put me in the mood to write about another. I moved books around so I could follow the list’s most lyrical collection (identified as the Goyette) with its most experimental (Kennedy/Werschler-Henry’s). I didn’t feel able to speak about “the feminine” in any constructive or new way, so I let three great female poets follow each other (Young, Dalton, and Solie) in the hopes that some glint of a theme would develop on its own. I found myself following controversial or obscure choices with known quantities, likely in the interest of keeping disgusted readers coming back.

As a poetic device, the list is among my least favourite tools. At least, List Poems are among my least favourite poetic varietals. That being said, listing is an integral part of most poets’ styles, and I include myself among them even though I prefer to keep my lists short and folded into the lyric around it. I’ve come to admire lists, though, as the troubles and joys they offer are similar across poetic schools and traditions. The problems of the list are constant, no matter the list maker. The concerns illustrated in the list referenced in my brief selection from Eunoia (namely, issues of rhythm, redundancy, depth, and breadth) are the same concerns shared by Camlot in his lists, Connolly in his, and the others. And they’re the same concerns I had in making this list of favourite books: rhythm (in that the list makes a sort of musical gestalt, a pay-off for the fine-tuning described in the previous paragraph), redundancy (I was never going to have two books by the same author, for example), depth (as translated from a line of poetry into a collection of personal essays—the desire to talk about new things, new themes, while developing the old tropes and choruses from earlier), and breadth. By breadth, I mean all of the following…

The Politics of the List:
Canons are obnoxious things. Whether their interest is the preservation of existing literary assumptions, or the push for new ones, they’re obnoxious. As the piling-on of “Best of the Decade’ lists begins in earnest these next few weeks, keep an eye out for the different kinds of lists. Most lists are either personal and surprising (like those generated by individual critics and media outlets in need of further column inches), or communal and boring, as when all surprises and anomalies of taste are ironed out by the sheer statistical weight of the 1,000 person survey (I’m looking at you, Academy Awards).

Most lists are conservative in nature. Even when they purport to be forward-focused, as in here and here, they are inherently an act of looking back, of freezing the recent past in place so it can be compared to the future. This is the nest of both conservative politics and aesthetics. While I don’t consider myself a subscriber to either of those philosophies, I know a lot of people who do, and the argument is essentially that the past needs to be codified, and its superlatives drawn out, so we can look to it as a potential guidepost for the future. This is why most lists (whether given the qualifiers “favourite”, “best”, “most influential”, “most newsworthy”, or even “sexiest”) tend to either be expressions of the dominant races, genders, classes, regions, etc, or (in an act far more backwards) an expression of those dominant groups with token exceptions given to, say, one representative of each marginalized constituency.

The first kind of list is a disappointment no matter what the author’s intentions, the second kind is only backwards if the falsely liberal gestures are conscious choices. I submit that any political bias in my list is not a conscious one; I never stopped to consider the following numbers until today…

Subtracting the as-yet unrevealed #1 favourite book, my list includes five men and four women. It includes only white people. I would say that, though I have no means of knowing for sure, the median age of the authors responsible is lower than the median age for Canadian poets in general. The majority of the books were written in cities, and most represented among them are the three Canadian cities I lived in myself (St. John’s, Halifax, Toronto). Surely, I was closest to the literary communities there, and that bias appears in the list. I have met six of these nine poets personally, and consider one a personal friend (in the real way, not the on-Facebook way). I believe I only had to exchange money for my personal copies of these books in four of the nine examples. The breakdown by publishers is as follows: three from Brick Books, and one each from Insomniac, ECW, Anansi, Gaspereau, Vehicule, and Coach House. It’s surprising to see Brick with so many, fully a third of the list so far. If I had been forced to name my favourite Canadian poetry brands before I started this project, I don’t know if they’d have cracked the top three. But the list surprises, and so there it is, pretty obviously placed at number one. It’s also notable that Brick is a somewhat rural publisher, at least in the context of its Toronto-centered industry. I notice that there’s nothing here to represent my own poetry stomping grounds at McClelland & Stewart. It’s okay, though. They know I love them.

This collapsing and re-collapsing could go on forever, but I think I’ll stop there. Up next, a sort of “honourable mentions”/”shadow cabinet” of ten more books that could have made my favourites, but were left out not as some random quality judgment, but for reasons described under one of the two headers detailed above. Essentially, for invalid reasons, in lieu of non-existent ones.

Knotting-Offs: George Murray and Sina Queyras

December 18, 2009

I was exciting to wake up this afternoon (I work nights, so this is wake-up time for me) and see top ten lists from two of my very favourite Canadian book bloggers. George Murray made my day last month by saying he was a fan of this blog, as the man behind Bookinja George is something of the Larry King of this little world, so I took his kind words to heart. And he’s followed through on a promise to make his own top ten list, his is international in scope, and of poets instead of individual books. He means everything he says, though, and it’s nice to see his sharp wit turned to something other than “the ongoing controversy over Kindles and other e-readzzzzzzzzz”

Sina Queyras is another blogger I shadowed (and continue to shadow) before starting Vox Pop. Any blog that can have a string of posts that go: music video, poetry review, comedy bit, guest essay on appropriations pretty much has me at Hello. Her list (of collections, and specifically Canadian collections) shares a lot of titles with mine.

Sina and I even have a number of shared near-misses and honourable mentions. I’ll be posting my honourable mentions, along with some notes about the politics of list-making, shortly. Then it’ll be Knotting-Off #1 before or during Christmas, and this little affair is done. Thanks to you adorable kittens who have emailed me saying what they think #1 will be, this being my favourite guess so far (I’m an egotist, yes, but not a masochist). If anybody actually gets it right between now and then, I promise glorious prizes.

Knotting-Off the Aughts #2: Christian Bök’s Eunoia

December 16, 2009

Year: 2001
Place of Creation: Toronto
Press: Coach House (Toronto)

Mode of Acquisition: Purchased, from the monocultural behemoth that dare not speak its name, and shipped to my dorm room in St. John’s, some time in the spring of 2002. What I remember most clearly about my first interaction with Eunoia is that I didn’t know of it as poetry, but rather heard about the book’s constraint, and ordered a copy without wondering about what kind of writing the constraint contained. Was I the first, or the last? Likely not.

Status of Personal Copy: Lent out to a friend and lost in the dissolution of that friendship. A., I understand why we’re not speaking anymore, and that it’s 80-90% my fault. Keep in mind, though, that none of the personality flaws that triggered this division were things that I tried to keep secret from you, or things that I am less than forthcoming about today. I am, in certain ways, a failed person. And so are you. I am particularly sorry for the Halloween Incident. And also, for the majority of 2003.

He rebels. He sets new precedents. He
lets cleverness exceed decent levels.
-from E

Things must have looked pretty good for the avant garde at the second annual Griffin Poetry Prize banquet in 2002. The movement, long an unfocused peripheral to the lyrical homogeneity of mainstream CanLit, had a spokesman, and one so breathtaking in his artistic ambitions that the centre had no choice but to take notice. The new, chaotic world was asking for new, chaotic poetics, and Eunoia was selling in curiously high numbers. The young academic behind it had spent seven years adhering to its unreasonable demands, and dropped his creation onto a country filled with flimsy narrative free-versers like a single stone wall, a marker delineating the end of one thing and the beginning of another.

Now obviously, this is not the history as I would normally write it. In art, no division is this absolute, and I happen to think quite highly of many of those flimsy free-versers. But I can write the above with a sort of bemused hyperbole because I sit at the far end of a decade that did not, in any substantial way, produce a revolution in Canadian poetics. Surely, there are more self-identified “experimental” poets in this country than there were fifteen years ago, and a lot of them are pretty great. But the best among them are not radical figures, rather they are poets who are able to combine a human eye with an ear to the dissociative fringes of our language. If the far corners of the literary establishment have only budged enough in eight years to allow more room for merry pranksters like Erin Moure and Margaret Christakos, then the reshaping of the poetry scene in Canada is something of a paper tiger. Erin Moure and Margaret Christakos are good poets, and would have been as successful in the era of bpNichol as the one of one another. So in the end, the incredible success (aesthetically, commercially, cross-culturally) of Eunoia maintains a difficult place in the history of our decade. As our most successful book, attention needs to be paid, but it is curiously alone. Eunoia did not birth or kill anything, it surprised everybody by being just another book, albeit a ferociously good one, filled with surprises of thought and of language unmentioned in its one-sentence gimmick. It didn’t change the game so much as it simply won it. As consolations go, not so bad.

Eunoia, as our most successful poetry book, is also one of the most talked about. And like a true experimentalist, Christian Bök loves to talk about the limits and controls of his experiment. While the constraint is fascinating as a conversation starter (the back cover of the first edition assigns personalities to each letter—“A is courtly, E is elegiac, I is lyrical, O is jocular, and U is obscene”) I prefer the poems. Constraints bring out the character of writers, when limited by their own conceits, they rely on their most available and comfortable tricks. And Bök, under duress, comes out as a satirist, a storyteller, and something of an amateur pornographer. While I like all the chapters in Eunoia, my favourite is A, in no small part due to its notable un-courtliness. Once Bök dispatches with his requisite poem about poetry (one of several lesser-known demands in Eunoia, such as the specific spatial limitations that find Bök stretching for em dashes over commas and inserting the occasional redundant phrase) he sets forth on a story about a young man named Hassan. As Eunoia was written mostly in the 1990s, any analogies to certain figures of early 21st century history are strictly coincidental, but the story of Hassan goes like this– He grows up in privilege, develops addictions to drugs, alcohol, and women, has a change of heart, develops a taste for libertarian economics, guts the economy of his nation, goes to war as a means of distraction, overseas the near-collapse of his country and… Well, if you need me to finish this thought, you’ve been reading far too much poetry, and not enough newspapers, this decade.

As amusing as my delicious forays into political satire are to us all, I don’t want to get distracted from the argument that Eunoia is more than its container, as that’s chief among my reasons for putting it on my list. I understand that the container is a memorable and dazzling one, and an intriguing entry point to the text, but texts are built out from words, and not in from their constraints, even in highly constrained texts like Eunoia. While Bök’s conception would be mentionable as an idea alone, what makes it lasting is the inspired quality of the work itself. From page 24 of the first edition: “Hassan can scan an atlas that maps Madagascar and lands afar: Java, Malta and Japan, Chad, Ghana and Qatar, Canada and Lapland, Rwanda and Malabar.” A cynical review of this section would say that Bök really wants us to know all the countries he can think of that use no other vowels beyond A. But that misses the subtleties of the arrangement, the decisions that are demanded by the constraint (as the constraint is not, as some critics have said, a means of lessening the impact of the poet’s individual decisions). Bök’s choice of sectioning off Madagascar allows for the alliteration with “maps”, the coupling rhyme with “lands afar”, and solves the problem of having a single four-syllable pronoun standing out in a sea of bi- and tri-syllabic ones. There are other decisions playing out in this tiny sample: which countries to pair up, which to separate with their own commas, how to continue the rhyme after “afar” (Malabar, as it fulfills this need and, like Lapland, isn’t really a country, was likely a late addition), and so on. What I’m trying to suggest here is that Eunoia isn’t notable just because it was accomplished, despite its incredible self-imposed obstacles. It’s great because it comes through those obstacles to the other side alive, energetic, and as full of variety and depth as most collections of unencumbered lyricism.

After such a mucking-about in the specifics of the text, I want to end by talking about Eunoia the publishing success. There are noted poets in this country, with six or seven books under their belts, who haven’t sold as many copies as Coach House has of Eunoia. Christian Bök would want you to think that this is caused by the masses demanding more experimentalism before re-embracing poetry, but the history I mentioned at the top of this post seems to disprove that. Even ideas as ingenious as the one that birthed Eunoia, like Kennedy and Wershler-Henry’s Apostrophe (Knotting-Off #8, don’t you know) have failed to recreate his commercial and critical success. As I’ve said earlier, Eunoia stands alone. The creator of no zeitgeists, no aesthetic revolutions, it’s just a single brash exception to the accepted limits of mainstream Canadian poetry.

So what was it, then, that made Eunoia so successful, if it didn’t tap into some unrealized yearning for books that challenge the communicative nature of language? I would argue that, to the rest of the world, poetry has for many years had something of a credibility problem. What we free-versers do is labour over objects that, in their finished states, don’t always look difficult enough to have warranted the effort. In the interest of what we label Accessibility, our rhythms, syntax, vocabulary, and subjects ape our idealized “mirror on society”. The resulting public reaction is a little like the guy who points at the million-dollar work of abstract art and proclaims, “But MY KID could’ve painted that.” Such a reaction calls into question one of two things, our intelligence (as Bök tells the world he does, right here) or the efficiencies of our efforts (as I do every time I lose an hour of my life debating with myself as to whether a certain phrase would be best contained by just one line, or two). Of course, most things that look easy aren’t easy at all, and part of the art of great contemporary poetry can be found in practitioners so tuned to the language around them that their final work grows seamlessly from the well of day-to-day speech.

I submit that a great book like Karen Solie’s Modern and Normal (Knotting-Off #3, dont you know) requires as much effort, intelligence, and autistic single-mindedness as a great book like Eunoia. The difference between them is that Christian Bök’s effort and dedication are easier sells than Karen Solie’s. When the Centre Pompidou went up in Paris, there were cries of outrage from the architectural establishment, who had dedicated themselves to an aesthetic that preferred clean lines to mask the chaotic creative energy that inspired them. The Centre Pompidou, with its visible piping and external escalators, was tantamount to the revealing of trade secrets. Likewise, there’s a subversive redesign to Bök’s creation. Eunoia is similar to the Centre Pompidou. It’s poetry, with the parts on the outside.

Bök is disingenuous when suggesting that he’s the only poet who works hard, but it’s true that he has been the only one able to translate how hard poets work into a relatable equation, and thus solved the credibility problem, for himself at least. Q: How hard is the writing of a great book of poems? A: It’s about as hard as writing one with only one vowel. This is why Bök has gotten the most progress in the world of mainstream literature, he’s re-codified the effort. My great disappointment, as Christian Bök waits for the experimentalist revolution that doesn’t appear to be coming, is that he’s missing out on the opportunity to be poetry’s national ambassador. He’s managed to crack a window in the overcrowded house of poets, now I wish he’d stop telling the passers-by he lives alone.

Bonus Points: Part of being internationally successful is having a busy YouTube life. Here’s a sample of Bök reading from Eunoia, at the 2006 Kuopio Sound Poetry Seminar.


Knotting-Off the Lately

December 14, 2009

One of my major inspirations in doing this knotting-off project was the annual list of favourite poetry books list put out by poet and noted Vox-Pop roommate Paul Vermeersch. Paul is as wide a reader of contemporary poetry as you’ll ever come across, and his lists always have a good mix of poets from down the street and across the oceans.

The list for 2009, in alphabetical order. Note: If you’re looking for publishers’ links, consult the original post.

To Be Read in 500 Years by Albert Goldbarth (Graywolf Press)
A Village Life by Louise Glück (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Inseminating the Elephant by Lucia Perillo (Copper Canyon Press)
Lousy Explorers by Laisha Rosnau (Nightwood Editions)
Mr. Skylight by Ed Skoog (Copper Canyon Press)
Pigeon by Karen Solie (House of Anansi Press)
Something Burned Along the Southern Border by Robert Earl Stewart (The Mansfield Press)
Reticent Bodies by Moez Surani (Wolsak & Wynn)
Selected Poems by Dara Weir (Wave Books)
Always Die Before Your Mother by Patrick Woodcock (ECW Press)

I’ve read 5.5 of these myself (the Woodcock, Surani, Stewart, Solie, Skoog, and maybe half the Goldbarth). It’s hard for me to talk too much about preferences this soon after first readings (I literally put down Stewart’s excellent Something Burned about three hours ago). The collection I’ve thought about the most beyond that initial interaction is likely Moez Surani’s refreshing and (potentially) important Reticent Bodies. Bodies will eventually be my selection for Julie Wilson’s December blog project, The Advent Book Blog, and I’ve agreed to review it for The Mansfield Revue in the new year. It’s a winner–you people should go out there and read it.

Knotting-Off the Aughts #3: Karen Solie’s Modern and Normal

December 13, 2009

Year: 2005
Place of Creation: Saskatchewan et. al.
Press: Brick (London, ON)

Mode of Acquisition
: I’m trying very hard to remember this. There are a handful of clues in the book itself. For one, my copy is signed. It reads (and I feel so awkward revealing an author’s inscription, it seems a breach of both my privacy and theirs): For Jake. Congratulations on your book, and all the best.–Karen. This would date the purchase to 2007 or so at latest, thus making my inability to remember things a little more embarrassing. Also, someone has gone through the book and circled various pages. These do not appear to be in either my hand, or that of the inscriber. For the record, the poems circled are: Nice, To Have and Have Not, Bomb Threat Checklist, and Montana. I can not understand what these poems have in common over their cousins in the book. The enigma expands…

Status of Personal Copy: It’s on the shelf, baby! Regular readers will note my general incompetence as a book collector; that past Knotting-Off entries have been lost to forgetting, to a sailor’s trunk, and even to a river. But Karen Solie is perhaps the only poet whose entire life’s work sits on my book shelf. This may be related to my Solie fandom being a predominantly Toronto-bred phenomenon and thus safe from earlier relocations, though I believe I bought Short Haul Engine in Newfoundland…oh shit, and I bought Modern and Normal off Kitty Lewis at the Brick Books table at the 2007 Eden Mills Writers’ Festival! Oh, blessed memory triggers, is there anything you can’t unearth?

                                    ..As if this has always
been happening and you’ve entered the coincidence of your life
with itself, the way a clock’s ticks will hit the beat of a Hank Williams song,
the best one, on the radio, fridge hum tuned without a quaver
to the sustained notes of the bridge. As if
you’ve arrived at where the hinge
-from “Determinism”

There’s a quotation making the rounds on the internet lately. It’s from Christian Bok, controversial salesman and one of my favourite poets. Requoted from Rob Taylor’s Roll of Nickels blog, it states “I always joke with my students that poetry couldn’t possibly be as hard as they think it is, because if it were as hard as they thought it was, poets wouldn’t do it. Really, they’re the laziest, stupidest people I know… You should never tell your students to write what they know because, of course, they know nothing: they’re poets! If they knew something, they’d be in that [discipline] actually doing it: they’d be in history or physics or math or business or whatever it is where they could excel.This is the kind of thing provocative people often say, fully aware that the statement is so full of holes that it acts more as a natural frame for its counterarguments than as a cogent rule of thought. I submit that being ignorant to things is not proof of intellectual laziness, but often evidence of a full and humble interaction with the immensity and complexity of the knowable world.

Enter Karen Solie and her polymath poetics, wherein a single speaker can pick up elements of an introductory physics textbook, a country song, and a Wikipedia entry’s worth of understanding about how rifles work, and spin these disparate worlds of knowledge into a triangulated point in the poet’s own memory. Solie is our most modern poet, in that her work is most reflective of the 21st century’s great epistemological paradox: we are confused by the scope of our available knowledge, and we don’t know quite what to do with it. Her work is often choked with information, taken from subcultures, jargons, and fields of thought so divergent that their juxtaposition is a sort of textual dating mechanism. The first poets of the 20th century scoured the world for a poetics of a baffling multiplicity, the first poets of this century need to look no further than a used book store, a flea market, or a Google search to be equally baffled. Information is everywhere, and so when it is enjambed together into a poem like Chance (where, in one four line graph, the references are: chaos theory, “The Shot Heard Round the World”, the development of human flight, and carpentry) there’s a naturalness, a self-apparent streak, that none of the early modernists, or mid-century Americans, possessed.

What’s ironic about Bok’s statement as it applies to Modern and Normal is that the massive borderlands between the known and the unknown in Solie’s work are the product of a voracious appetite for knowledge, not laziness of any kind. Solie shows a real Protestant work ethic in her poetry, and self improvement is a theme throughout Modern and Normal, whether played out through the human body (Cardio Room, Young Women’s Christian Association) or the human mind (Science and the Single Girl). Never in our history has the immensity of the things we don’t know shit about made itself more apparent. A curious investigator then becomes a sort of self-educating dervish, reacting to the chaos of the knowable landscape by learning things chaotically. One follows a thread (to choose among Solie’s, let’s say German philosophy) jumping from thinker to thinker, across the historical concerns that shape them, into geography. art, sports, military theory, always returning to the personal, the pre-assumed, as a shifting point of reference. But to know a little bit about many things is the reward for mastering nothing. This is what Bok is complaining about (albeit quite likely in a devil’s advocate, self-deprecating kind of way), but it’s also the tension that makes a poet like Solie among our most engaging.

I can say, in general, that Karen Solie’s poems tend to take their knowledge from the outside (public) world and their wisdom from a private (personal) one. It’s that tension that leads to moments of grace wherein aphorisms as keen and textured as the lines “This/is the man-made moment” just fall out the end of the list of shooting techniques lined up for the first two-thirds of “An Argument for Small Arms”, as natural and assured as another tip on stance or breathing. Here is accrued knowledge giving way, reducing, to a single original idea. The epistemological nightmare of the digital age, boiled down. This is why Solie is our decade’s defining Canadian poet, and this is most apparent in Modern and Normal, between her two other great books—the more personal Short Haul Engine, and this year’s Pigeon, wherein her novice self-education became a little more erudite, and a little less scared and in love with the world.

There’s an essay I like to read every six months or so; I read it when feeling overwhelmed. Typically I go to it when staggered by the massive weight of unread books on my shelf, but the same urge can grow out of the massive weight of unread books in the world. And of unvisited places, unconsidered viewpoints, unheard words. It’s Zadie Smith’s introduction to the first edition of David Egger’s annual Best American “Non-Required Reading” Series and it’s made up of a half-dozen responses to quotes on the subjects of learning, reading, and, in a broad sense, self-improvement. The general narrative of the essay concerns Smith’s slack-jawed reaction to the immensity of the canonical British education, and her gradual acceptance of the impossibility of knowing all the things she really wants to know. It’s an essay I’d love to put in the hands of every freshman English major in the country. Solie’s interests are even greater than Smith’s (her preoccupations transcend literature and philosophy to include sports, mechanics, chemistry, and math) but the great object lessons of Modern and Normal and the Smith essay are similar, and this is likely why both are recurring literary comforts to me. Here are two more young people born middle class (or lesser), with voracious appetites and little concern for epistemological patterning or educational career-tracks, at play in a knowledge that their ancestors weren’t privy to, equal parts overjoyed and overwhelmed by the act.

A poet like Karen Solie is appealing to the poetry-reading minority because, like them, she is left both confused and enthused by the world of knowledge, and she is willing to factor that confusion into her artistic practice. The world is vast, and we’ve filled it with insatiable and terrifying things. What us adventurers really need is a tour guide, an interpreter. Someone to stand beside us and experience the same awe, be humbled by the same history. That Solie is talented enough to move so easily between the intake of information and the output of wisdom makes her something more than just a fellow-traveller, but our speaker box, our flagship. Valedictorian of the class of the spastically attentive. As Modern and Normal explains in its final two lines, she “believes one idea. and then another. That is, in the instant, at the time.”